Op-Ed: Rights of an unborn fetus

Dec. 4, 2012, 12:03 p.m.

Does human life begin at conception? And is that sufficient to extend the right to life from that moment on? Adam Johnson’s column last week argued for this case, but the issues here are more complex than a simple yes or no.

Is a fetus just after conception an example of human life?

If we are using the term “human life” in its strictly biological sense, then any assembly of cells with human DNA would be an example of human life. A fetus would qualify. But so would HeLa, a strain of cervical cancer cells sourced from Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta “died” from cancer in 1951. If the presence of living human cells is the necessary and sufficient definition of a continuing human life, then Henrietta did not “really” die in 1951.

It is clear that such a definition of a human, while useful to biologists, is not applicable in the domain of law and ethics where the discussion of rights is properly situated. To give another example, a brain-dead person is considered “dead” even though the majority of her organs or cells may still be alive and may be kept alive indefinitely into the future.

Many ethicists have argued that the language of rights can only be applied to organisms with adequate levels of consciousness, volition and intentions. A fetus less than two months old does not have any brain structures that can sustain even minimally conscious or unconscious neural activity. Such a fetus is not a human being in the morally relevant sense of the term.

But not so fast

A person sympathetic to the pro-life viewpoint might argue that the reason a post-conception embryo is different from all other clumps of cells is that this collection of cells represents the first stage in a developmental process that results in a “morally relevant” human being to whom the language of rights and responsibilities may be coherently applied. Thus we cannot hope to confer any protective rights to human beings without conferring some rights to the developing entity on which their very existence initially depends. A fetus is therefore a necessary existence condition for a human person. Surely that fetus needs to be protected for the right to life to operate in the social realm?

It is here that we arrive at the great divide: Which things acquire protected status when the right to life is conferred upon human persons?

Two theories about the right to life

1) Pro-choice advocates define the right to life as a protecting persistence condition only. If a “morally relevant” human being is already present, then a persistence-defined right to life protects all things necessary for that being to continue to exist. Simple examples include access rights to food, water and medicine, among others. Conditions necessary for existence of future persons, according to this view, are not protected de facto. They might be protected to a limited extent if current persons hold future persons as being valuable for enhancing their own life purposes. In this sense, a “wanted” fetus enjoys the same kind of right as, for instance, national treasures like the “Statue of Liberty” may enjoy in the United States. If that “wantedness” is lost, so go all rights.

2) A secular pro-life advocate defines the right to life to cover all necessary existence and persistence conditions for human persons. So as far as knowledge allows, entities and resources necessary for the coming-into-existence of persons are protected as well. Using a campfire analogy for this viewpoint, to protect the rights of a fully burning stage of a human life, the kindling stage of life also needs to be protected and tended to, even though it is still not “fire.”

It is difficult to advocate one view over the other, and the rights of women to choose also matter in this debate. But if this article encourages you to think more on the topic, my job is done.

Sayak Banerjee
Ph.D. Mechanical Engineering ’13

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